In a 20 October letter, leading archaeologists speak out against plans to break ground on a museum that they say will disturb an ancient Muslim cemetery in the heart of Jerusalem.
With a dramatic modern design and a central location in the contested city, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance is supposed to bring together people from a variety of viewpoints, religions, and ethnicities. But the project's Jerusalem site is on and adjacent to the ancient Muslim cemetery of Mamilla, located just to the west of the ancient city's walls. Mentioned in 11th century C.E. documents, the cemetery was the resting place for early Muslims as well as Christian crusaders, and was used as a burial ground until the mid-20th century.
In their letter, 84 respected archaeologists took the unusual step of speaking out against the museum project, which is scheduled to begin construction next month. The letter, addressed to center board members, Jerusalem's mayor, and the director of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), says that the project involved "surreptitious and unscientific removal of hundreds of human burials," and broke Israeli laws requiring that all human remains be turned over to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for reburial. The archaeologists say that at least some of the remains were not properly handled or reinterred, and that the center "hurried the excavations" before construction, "resulting in poor archaeological practices." They also say that the center misrepresented data on human remains in a court case that recently went to the Israeli Supreme Court. Such lapses, the letter says, "would not have occurred with a Jewish burial site."
The researchers include Tel Aviv University archaeologist Raphael Greenberg, who said in a statement that "the case of Mamilla is a travesty of archaeological ethics" and that the cemetery should be "preserved as a demonstration of respect for Jerusalem's shared heritage." Yale University archaeologist Harvey Weiss denounced what has taken place as a "desecration."
Center officials did not return requests for comment. But the center in the past has hotly rejected such criticism. On its Web site, the center maintains that no one complained about the location during years of public hearings. The Web site notes that Muslim clergy invoked the concept of mundras—in which a cemetery is no longer considered sacred—in the 1920s when a Muslim university campus was planned at the site. That position was reiterated in 1964, although Muslim authorities have since voided that invocation. The site has largely been used primarily as a parking lot in the past half century; critics maintain that hundreds of refurbished grave markers have recently been bulldozed in preparation for construction.
In the Supreme Court ruling on a case that aimed to stop the project, the top Israeli judges noted that during the planning period, "no one raised any claim, on even one occasion, that the planning procedures violated the sanctity of the site." In addition, center officials argue, Mamilla is actually on an adjacent site from that of the actual museum.
The archaeologists' furor is just the latest problem for the museum. The company managing the construction project resigned a month ago amid differences with the Los Angeles-based center, and the original designer, Frank Gehry, pulled out of the project last year, though he said it was not due to the controversy.